This year began differently with humanity flustered, confused and hysteric as the novel coronavirus dawned on us. COVID-19 alarmed the health sector so much that additional societal consequences were not adequately addressed. As most nations went under lockdown, the use of the internet exponentially rose. Radical groups, during this time, could easily claw onto their targets, refurbish their agendas and further their causes. Activists involved in extremist pursuit, either left, right, cultural, religious and even those included in Jihadist terrorism, could easily grasp the opportunities the pandemic has to offer to add to their objectives.
As the worldwide internet presence skyrocketed with schools, businesses, corporations, agencies, banks, and all of civil life having gone online, so did militant groups, already having been internet-active for the past few recent years.
Across the globe, radicalization, or Islamist extremism to be more specific, surfaced during the pandemic even when it wasn’t expected. Earlier in June, for example, Bangladesh’s 10 Minute School founder, Ayman Sadiq, received online death threats by an unknown Islamist group. Even in the developed world, it has become evident that cyber radicalization in young people are at a rise during the pandemic. In fact, the internet presence of radical organizations, mainly Islamist militant groups, has been very active, as their propaganda can be accessed through social media, dark networks and so on. Spreading propaganda and steady radicalization via the internet is not a new phenomenon for many Jihadist networks. This brings us back to determining how critical online radicalization is during the pandemic.
The scopes that the pandemic may escort for radicalizing youth targeted through the cyberspace are numerous:
1. An extended online presence of the youth during the pandemic, with limitations to access the outside world, without a doubt has increased their risk of radicalization. Almost all school and tertiary education systems, especially universities, are teaching online. Students have no choice but to indulge in online learning, which grants them access to more internet time.
2. Common youth frustrations such as unemployment, education inequalities, income inequalities, lack of opportunities and social grievances have pertained in the developing and underdeveloped societies for a long time. The coronavirus pandemic has, without a doubt, worsened these issues within the youth. Terror units are more inclined on gaining from these weaknesses during this time.
3. Internal displacement is felt greatly in the poorer countries with COVID-19 having caused mass economic losses and social disparities. South Asian and African nations have felt this greatly, with many youths, along with their families, being forced to relocate from the urbans, which causes enormous frustrations and grievances within them. It fuels their identity crises and could easily benefit terrorist units to attain targets.
4. Health sectors have not been particularly triumphant in addressing the concerns of the people, even when it came to the world’s most competent nations. Drawbacks in efficient responses by governments in attending to the health and social securities of the youth during the pandemic aggravates them, creating more space for militants to recruit them.
5. Trending in poorer nations mostly, an increased blame-game continues to ensue as many people point at the marginalized communities as a leading cause of the spread of the pandemic, such as from the Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar. This may lead to an increased community-based hatred within youths, and radical ideas may coerce them into derailing from common morals.
6. Militant groups during this time not only could provide a spiritual dictation to justifying radicalization but may also have attained ways to provide economic and social benefits to youths who are suffering from confusion and personal grievances, which allows radicalization and recruitment to be so much easier now than ever.
7. Finally, poorer nations of the world, such as in South Asia or Africa, have been observing a social ecosystem incorporated with cultural and religious sensitivity for many decades which radical Islamist groups have exploited. The turmoil of the pandemic was weaponized by radical organizations who have even termed COVID-19 as a “soldier of God.” This apocalyptic narrative by radical Islamist groups can further contribute to their extremist agendas. All over the world, there are already multiple accounts of incidents where the virus was seen as nothing but a conspiracy, attacks were encouraged, and extreme propagandas continued to prevail.
Furthermore, the impacts of the pandemic itself would play a large role in contributing to the rise of radicalized youth. With less youth continuing their education due to the hardships the pandemic has brought upon their families and themselves, more youth are expected to be unemployed, hence a large portion of them could fall victim to socioeconomic isolation. Due to the pandemic, strengthening community values within these youth may not succeed, making it more alluring for them to be radicalized in dictation of spiritualism and religion. Lastly, recreational activities during the pandemic might also contribute to online radicalization of the youth. COVID-19 has limited access to numerous recreations, which frustrates young people deeply.
However, being confined at home and having easy access to the internet has given youth the opportunity to seek other means of entertainment: The first is social media and streaming sites that allow the youth to view unverified and inauthentic online content, and as terror units propagate their agendas throughout the cyberspaces the youth dwell in on a daily basis, it gives these militants more space to secure targets.
The second would be video gaming, which is not particularly new. ISIS, in the past, has attracted public attention through showcasing footage collected through helmet cameras during criminal operations that resemble first-person shooter games that youth are extremely indulged in. The gamification of terror may occur through livestreams of attacks or incorporation of gamified elements in the tools and strategies of militant wings. Making propaganda seem more modern and trendier through the use of video-games appearing as “cool and appealing” to youth is a recent but not surprising strategy of extremists. During the pandemic, youth have been more available to online gaming, often competitive ones that include elements of violence and warfare, which gives the terrorist groups another gateway to pursue their targets.